Driverless vehicles have the capacity to revolutionise how Australians think about and access public transport. This chapter will discuss the major potential benefits which autonomous vehicles could have for public transport services, especially in regional Australia, along with some of the concerns the Committee heard.
As the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development (DIRD) noted:
Automated vehicles have significant potential to improve public transport services and deliver increased social benefits, particularly for people who do not live close to major public transport hubs or routes with regular services, including in regional areas.
DIRD identified some possible public transport application of driverless vehicles in its submission:
improved first and last mile connections to existing services, particularly if automated vehicles are deployed as a low-cost, on-demand service;
new mobility options in areas not linked by public transport and in areas of low patronage; and
potential reductions in the need for investment in new services and infrastructure (if automated vehicles create large efficiency benefits).
As the Bus Industry Confederation (BIC) noted, the economics of bus operation would favour automation, since the driver’s wages account for approximately half the costs of running an urban route bus service. Removing this component could therefore turn currently unviable services into financially sustainable ones.
The submission from Swinburne University of Technology highlighted some of the reasons why autonomous public transport could be amongst the first passenger-focused examples of driverless technology:
Full automation of buses, for example, could be much easier to achieve than for private vehicles. When the situations in which autonomous vehicles must operate on shared road space are limited, this would greatly increase their feasibility. Fixed route buses with high ridership are perfect examples of this possibility. They run on pre-set paths in a narrow range of situations and in some cases they have their own exclusive lanes. Unlike vehicles that could go anywhere, fixed route buses don’t need a map of absolutely everywhere.
Similarly, Telstra pointed out that, without having to factor in the cost of a driver, ‘there is no imperative for public transport to be based around the use of large vehicles like buses and trams. This provides a completely new set of possibilities for public transport that is highly configurable’.
Amongst the most important potential impacts of autonomous vehicles could be the increased public transport options for Australians in regional areas. DIRD discussed this option in its submission:
Automated transport also has the potential to fill gaps in public transport services in some regional areas, with significant social benefits for residents, including increased access to employment opportunities. For example, on-demand public transport services using small automated vehicles with low operating costs could significantly improve service coverage in satellite towns around Australia’s major cities. This type of automated transport could be cost competitive with regional rail links or bus services, or could fill last-mile service gaps.
RAC Intellibus Trial – Perth
As part of its inquiry, the Committee undertook an inspection of the RAC Intellibus trial in Perth. This, launched in August 2016, was the first automated vehicle trial in Australia and had three aims:
increase the understanding about the potential impacts and opportunities from the advent of AV technology;
give Western Australians the chance to see AV technology and use and experience it; and
further help WA prepare a roadmap for changes to support and safely transition to AV technology.
One of the key findings of the Intellibus trial reiterates a key theme of this inquiry – that more exposure to autonomous vehicles leads to a better understanding and higher levels of acceptance. In the case of the Intellibus, RAC found:
We survey every person who goes on the shuttle bus both before and after they travel, and we know that 93 per cent of them feel better or more positive about level 4 vehicles once they have been on the Intellibus and 98 per cent of all of our survey respondents say they can see it being a viable mode of transport in the future. It is really difficult to get 98 per cent of people to agree on anything, and usually we are in the 30s and 40s—and that is if we get a response. Our response rate has been fantastic. The community is absolutely aware of it. They are definitely engaged. The critical thing will be making sure they are a part of the story for how we roll out these vehicles in the future.
While much of the focus of this inquiry was on road-based vehicles, the Committee also heard that rail systems will offer some of the first options for completely automated transport in Australia. Freight trains will be one of the earliest applications of fully autonomous vehicles, but the public transport options will also exist. DIRD’s submission notes that automation in the rail industry is ‘a mature technology’, with over 50 driverless metro lines across 37 cities worldwide.
The key benefits of rail-based driverless public transport are largely the same as for road-based vehicles, including improved capacity, lower running costs (in part due to reduced staffing costs) and increased safety. As DIRD’s submission notes, the successful use of driverless train systems across the world suggests that public acceptance of fully autonomous trains is at a higher level than for road-based vehicles.
In Australia, the first example of a driverless rail system is currently under construction: the Sydney Metro Northwest project. The New South Wales Government’s submission highlighted that Sydney’s Metro rail system will be ‘a highly controlled, closed system where access is restricted to the automated vehicles, which do not have to interact with other types of trains, road vehicles or pedestrians’.
Dr Herath of the University of Canberra pointed to rail as an obvious first step in the automation of public transport in Australia:
That is a key area we should look into right now. In terms of improving efficiency, that is one of the first steps you would want to look into. That is where some of these partnerships could happen, because they have immediate benefits, both economic and social, and efficiency-wise. That is the sort of thing you would want to look into as a first stage of transition rather than looking at the automation of other transport like cars and commuter buses.
The Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR) is responsible for accrediting rail safety operators in Australia. For an operator to gain that accreditation, they ‘must be able to demonstrate competence and capacity in managing risks to safety’. Risks must be assessed and mitigated ‘so far as reasonably practicable’.
As the NTC’s submission notes, the ONRSR’s accreditation model means that ‘there are unlikely to be regulatory barriers to introducing more automated trains in Australia’.
One concern regarding public transport in the context of driverless vehicles is that the rise in autonomous passenger vehicles may act as a disincentive for people to use public transport. As DIRD’s submission noted:
… it is also possible that automated vehicles could compete for trips with existing public transport services, especially because of increased convenience, comfort and privacy. Early modelling (based on data from the Netherlands) suggests that the costs of using shared automated vehicles could be significantly lower than owning a traditional vehicle, and that these costs could be commensurate with public transport fares. If this scenario were to eventuate, it could affect the economics of public transport networks and future investment, and increase congestion on the road network.
An issue raised by some witnesses was that the functions of existing drivers and other employees on public or mass transport systems are not exclusively related to the control of the vehicle. Drivers and conductors serve other roles, including ticketing, social supervision and passenger assistance. While a driver may no longer be necessary on the vehicle, there will still need to be a staff member to carry out the other roles.
The Bus Industry Confederation (BIC), for instance, argued that the public may not willingly accept entirely driverless buses:
The BIC would note however that the concept of a driverless bus, in particular large buses, may be technologically possible but the reality of mass transit and school bus services operating in this way are much less certain for a variety of operational and personal safety and societal issues. The unknown element from a bus perspective is if it is going to be accepted by users concerned about safety and security. Measures to gain the trust of the community in relation to safety and security will be very important, but ultimately they may not be successful. This issues has the potential to block the use of driverless buses and may limit the technology to personal conveyances and may even restrict them.
The BIC pointed to overseas experience to support this argument, noting that a ‘driver’ of a bus seems to be preferred by many passengers:
One factor that has been recognised after actual trials of driverless buses on guided busways in France is that passengers do have concerns of trust and safety when a driver is not aboard. In this example, drivers were returned to the bus to ease concern, despite the fact that the vehicle remained self-driven. The physical presence of the driver was an important psychological factor, even if it was only for “override” capabilities if required. Trusting future technology will be a major challenge for many individuals.
The Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI) provided further research support for this point, based on its 2016 survey of Australians’ attitudes towards autonomous vehicles. That survey found that only 43 per cent of respondents were comfortable with the idea of travelling on public transport – such as a bus or taxi – without a driver. Only slightly more (46 per cent of respondents) were comfortable with the suggestion of share cars – travelling in a small vehicle with strangers.
If the suggestion that a non-driving staff member on board the vehicle will still be required is correct, then the benefits, other than improved safety, of driverless vehicles to mass public transport may be limited. Many of the expected benefits – particularly for regional areas – described above are based on the premise that driverless public transport options will be flexible and more economical than those requiring human drivers.
A related point was made by the Motor Trades Association Queensland, noting that the impact of autonomous vehicles on the public transport sector need to be understood in the context of Australia’s overwhelmingly private transport-focused pattern:
Public transport systems/modes may emerge that provide solutions not available previously, but to date public transport has not been the transport mode of choice and it seems on average less than 10 per cent of Australia’s workforce utilises public transport to travel to work. Private motor vehicles have been the transport of choice resulting in urban transport congestion, environmental degradation and generating social cost for communities and cities.
As with other aspects of driverless vehicles, it is likely that attitudes towards driverless public transport will change once more people experience the technology. The Committee therefore is of the view that trials of autonomous vehicles in Australia should focus on vehicles with public transport applications. The existing trials of buses in Perth and Darwin could provide models for other trials.
While the Intellibus itself – like the Darwin Waterfront driverless bus trial that began in February 2017 – is only a small vehicle, and therefore not comparable to large commuter buses, the Committee nonetheless recognises that these trials serve important roles in increasing people’s familiarity with driverless vehicle technology. Further, they point to a potential future application of public transport, in which small autonomous vehicles provide more focused and localised services than has traditionally been the role of public transport. The emergence of driverless vehicle technology will bring about a change in the role of public transport without necessarily replicating existing public transport structures.
The Committee is of the view that improving public transport options, particularly in regional and rural Australia, will offer a substantial public benefit.
The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government, in association with state and territory governments and local councils, consider funding of trials of automated vehicles with a public transport application, in both metropolitan areas and regional locations.